The State of the Debate on Climate Change: Transformational Change Needed

Darmstadt – Kranichstein Passive House, Germany / International Passivehaustagung

At a conference organized by the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE) in Washington, D.C., Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University, said “spreading today’s best building practices could hold energy costs steady,” but the big question is “how to get the public and private sectors to work together to make transformational change.” That was one of the key takeaways in a session moderated by The New York TimesAndrew Revkin.

Here are some more problems limiting action on climate change, and the transformational solutions needed to solve them:

The problems

David Hales, president of Second Nature, thought “higher education should be leveraged to promote the transition to a sustainable society.” However, “all educational institutions think they are eternal and plan to be around forever.” Hales noted that “we’re not prepared to deal with the gap between aspiring for eternal existence and living in our future climate.” Plus, most university endowments don’t take materials’ effect on the environment into consideration. About “seven percent of endowments are invested in fossil fuels.”

Robert Dixon, vice president at Siemens Infrastructure and Cities, worried that “our decision-making methodology is broken.” Thinking about the life of a building tends to be short term rather than long-term, considering the building’s entire life cycle.

Jennifer Jurado, director of the Natural Resources Planning and Management Division, Broward County, Florida, noted that in southeast Florida, “water is recognized as a vulnerability, impacting now just coastal communities but inward ones as well.” Measures are not in place within the water system to deal with the massive flooding associated with storm events.

Also, boosting renewable energy is challenging, with “very few incentives for anyone to do anything.” She said “our energy prices are already very low.” Accordingly, the risk in renewable energy is transferred to the individual.

According to Ürge-Vorsatz, “there is a way to get more energy wisdom.” She provided a European perspective, with “systemic approaches to energy waste.” A “transformational change in the building sector gives us tremendous opportunities. It’s good for everyone.” She noted that “we know how to build and retrofit buildings that use one tenth of energy, get rid of allergens, and are more comfortable, but a lot of people don’t believe this.” Incremental change, for instance replacing a roof or light bulbs, is “doing more harm than good,” given “systemic deep retrofits are more cost effective.”

Anthony Michaels, co-founder and managing director of Proteus Environmental Technologies and chief scientist at Pegasus Capital Advisors, said “you can make money reducing emissions. Why aren’t companies doing this?” He asked us to think about material waste. We “haul oil out of the ground, pour our ingenuity to turn it into products that end up in the dump and don’t commingle.”

Some solutions

Is the academic side too slow? “Yes and no,” said Hales. “What colleges and universities have done well is to grab the low-hanging fruit, but they haven’t looked systemically at how to produce change.” He urged “starting with research and refocusing the mission of higher education on this critical issue of the twenty-first century.”

Dixon called for a push to build awareness of the environmental return on investment. “Building owners have a choice, and there’s no imperative to do anything.” The “real challenge is economics—a new roof will take 50 years to pay back.”

“Europe has a very different approach to regulations,” said Ürge-Vorsatz, who cited their quite strong legislation and strict building performance standards. “I do see tremendous behavioral changes in Europe”—for instance, “one third of people commute by bicycle”—but “there is still a tremendous educational need.” She saw a need to be “more innovative with business models,” really educating business leaders to use economic models that capture long-term interest.

Finally, Jurado saw “the consequences of elected officials always dealing with post-event effects rather than the long term.” She observed that “local communities have a greater understanding of sea level rise, but this conversation isn’t happening at the state level.” She described a 2009 partnership between several counties in southeast Florida, including Broward, that resulted in “uniform planning tools and sea level planning projections being formally integrated” into local government.

This guest post is by Karen Grajales, ASLA Public Relations Manager.

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